|Swamps and Spanish Moss
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Things have begun to settle down and the skies have cleared at last. The wind is shifting to the west and that should make manageable our passage down the Cape Fear River. To get there, we run down about ten miles of the ICW to a location where the harbor of Carolina Beach stands off the port bow and Snows Cut running over to the Cape Fear River lies directly off the starboard beam. We will not be stopping at Carolina Beach although Beth's admonitions about the place certainly piqued my interest. Yesterday, Fred and I discussed the possibility of running down this far to spend the night so as to be well positioned for an early morning transit of the Cape Fear River (conditionns usually are calmer at dawn). When Beth got wind of this she cautioned us about those Carolina Beach women. They are, she claimed, wild and highly demanding, and especially if they have tattoos. I was never sure whether she was discouraging--or encouraging--us to make a stop there. Beth's words made my mind conjure a rustic and ramshackle place, but that of course turned out to be completely off the mark. As we approached the outskirts of the town, there was a string of mansions on landscaped estates. For opulence and ostentation, they definitely make the finals. Maybe the heart of the town is a little seedy, but I suspect not.
The winds are definitely out of the west now. Snows Cut has chop on the nose and when we pass out into the open breadth of the Cape Fear River the slop is even bigger. Almost immediately, however, we are able to bear off downstream and take the assault abaft. This particular downstream stretch of the Cape Fear River has a channel that breaks off from the main channel and runs for a few miles close up against the right bank. It would be nice to take it and get some protection from the westerly wind, but it is out-of-bounds for ordinary people. The military has a base there and later I learn that it is one of the country's largest ordinance depots.
Cape Fear itself is situated at the mouth of the river, a sandy spit extending out on the river's eastern side. Tucked a short distance in from the mouth, the river is broad and has on its western side a peninsula on which the town of Southport is located. To carry on in the ICW, one rounds that peninsula and heads along a channel that parallels the coastline, which now will be running east-west. One has the most surprising things about this section of the eastern seaboard (at least to a geographer) is the way in which it runs nearly as much east-west as it does north-south. Somehow, when you look at a map of the country this is not as obvious as it is for Maine and the rest of New England. But really, all the way from Cape Hatteras to Savannah--a distance of about 500 miles--the shoreline behaves this way.
We round up northward into the little gut that defines the Southport Harbor and tie off at floating docks located next to a restaurant that is closed for the season. Here we are greeted by two men who take our lines, give us cleating advice, tell us about their town, and offer us beer. One is clean-cut and young; the other is a lean, crusty slip of a man with a bushy black beard and narrow face. The bushy bearded one owns the large fishing boat tied off next to us--battered but sturdy--and carrys on a running commentary about his boat and his town. He is extremely hospitable in spite of his curmudgeonly manner. Among the things that we learn from him is the fact that we can stay overnight at these docks for free. Since the busy season is over and the restaurant to which the docks belong is closed, there will be no problem with spending the night.
An hour or two of cycling around the town of Southport reveals it to be a treasure chest of well-preserved old homes lining residential streets shaded by a virtual forest of live oak trees. Their elephantine trunks sustain massive branches that spread out horizontally for impossible distances. You can pedal down the middle of one of these streets, and the live oaks to either side will be holding hands only a short distance above your head. It is a display of graceful strength that rivals that of Chinese gymnasts on the rings.
The main street itself is not so remarkable, but it was made remarkable to us when we stopped at Spike's Dairy Bar for an ice cream (I almost bought a T-shirt). While we were enjoying our treats, two middle aged women parked and came up to the pass-through window. One of them, a short, vivaceous firecracker with light hair and sparkling eyes, simply could not restrain herself from talking to total strangers. It was nothing about Fred and me, I don't think, it was just her compulsion to communicate during every waking moment. In a very thick but decipherable (Brazilian) accent, she told us all about her miserable, no-good, dead husband and flirted continually with us in that unusual manner that conveys the sense that ". . . this is nothing personal; I just like to flirt."
Southport Harbor: 33* 54.965' W / 78* 01.388' W
Distance: 28 miles
Total Distance: 7,538 miles
Monday, November 17, 2008
After an early morning sortie to the town coffee shop, Fred and I pack up and cast off for points south. As we begin to undo our lines, Bushy Beard comes lurching out of his cabin and onto the dock, looking more like someone trying to collect unpaid dock fees than a friendly neighbor hoping to give a helping hand. But help is all that is on his mind and he seems almost crestfallen that the only thing left to handle is Kobuk's bowline: North Star is already on the water and I have already gotten Kobuk's stern line in. He tosses the bowline to me as I jump aboard, and then he waves and wishes us well and urges us to return to Southport.
No longer is there wind and rain to complicate our passages--it all cleared away yesterday afternoon and the weather forecast promises bright, still days through until the weekend. A high pressure cell has moved in but it must have come from far north in Canada. Last night the temperature dropped down to the thirties and the expectation is that it will get even colder in the next couple days. I keep Kobuk's curtains zipped on all the time these days and only when I want to take a photo or clearly see nearby hazards do I crack the cabin top and allow the frigid air to blow. In just a few seconds it sucks away the greenhouse warmth that so gradually builds when everything is battened.
Pretty much all of North Carolina's coastal zone is a warren of meandering river channels bounded by very low lying land. Along river channels, and even in many stretches of the ICW canal, the banks are swaths of marsh grass extending great distances back from the water. Pines and other trees stand beyond the marsh grass, presumably at the point where the land begins to rise a foot or two higher above high water. Much of the marsh grass exists on flat land that is only inches above normal high tides, but whenever there is a storm surge or a run of days with a consistent wind pushing the tides higher than usual, these marsh lands become flooded. This often has the potential to double or triple the breadth of the waterway. The waterway itself usually has extensive shallow zones with only a narrow winding causeway of deep water where a river channel is situated or a straight-running and dredged slot where engineers have positioned the ICW. In either event, what you see is not what you get since a large part of the open water is dangerously shallow for boating and all the flat tables of marsh grass are too susceptible to flooding for people to occupy them.
Much of this coastal region has no development visible from the water, but there are also many areas where homes line both shores for mile after mile. By necessity, those homes are set back from shore, sheltered under the trees. Even there, the threat of occasional flooding has persuaded many to build above ground level. Indeed, my understanding is that nowadays building codes generally require elevated living spaces and electrical wiring that is run at the top of the walls with projections down to outlets and switches.
For me, a most startling aspect of these waterfront developments is the way in which houses on shore gain access to the open water. Out across the marsh grass, often extending for well over a hundred yards, a wooden dock will extend. It continues on past the high water mark out to where the low water level leaves at least a few feet of depth. Only that way can one keep a boat in the water on a continuous basis. The docks are stupendously long and commonly built with posts that look like telephone poles that must be at least thirty feet long each. Ten to fifteen feet are driven into the ground; four or five feet elevate the dock above the marsh grass; four to six feet often are left standing above the level of the dock. These posts are driven in pairs, spaced at 6-8 foot intervals and then the dock is hung from them. As I said before, a dock 100 yards long is not unusual and that means around a hundred telephone poles had to be driven for its construction. This strikes me as a major project. After all, once the telephone poles have finally been set, there still remains the task of constructing a boardwalk that is at least four feet wide. Furthermore, most dock builders want to make good use of the final stretch of dock--the part that is out on the water--so they commonly build an inflated square end on the dock and put a second level about seven feet above the first. This is hot country in the summer time so that second level needs to have a roof on it to keep out the sun. Now it is time to build about a tenth of a mile of railings so that one can safely use the structure. Since most everyone who owns a home along the waterfront has paid a premium for it, the idea of not having a dock is almost inconceivable. Virtually every one has one, and this means that when you motor on by you see as many of these long docks as you see homes. The docks run more or less parallel to each other, of course, and they are so close together as to appear about as widely spaced as the tines in a fork. It is a colossal repetition that sometimes goes on for house after house, mile after mile. One may have faith in the capitalist system's ability to find efficient methods of production, but it doesn't seem to have the ability to achieve similar economies when it comes to private consumption patterns. On a given day, Kobuk may pass many hundreds of these docks. Most will have boats tied off at the end. But not one in a hundred will have someone out there enjoying the view or fishing over the railing or fiddling with the boat.
By mid-afternoon, North Star and Kobuk reach Calabash Creek where Skipper Bob says the anchorages are reasonably good (if you don't know who Skipper Bob is, then you definitely haven't run the ICW). North Star drops anchor right away, but I cruise on up about a mile to the town of Calabash and discover a rustic port facility that is crammed with commercial fishing boats, tour boats, and deep sea charter boats. From the water at least, the town of Calabash is virtually nonexistent. A few buildings are visible and that's about it. I can find no free dock space so I give up on the idea of checking out the town and return to an anchorage not far from North Star.
This Calabash Creek meanders back and forth across the border between North and South Carolina. Here where we are anchored we have just crossed over into South Carolina but up around the next bend the little town of Calabash is back in North Carolina. Anyway, this crossing into South Carolina makes Kobuk a visitor to 26 of the 50 states--a clear majority.
Calabash Creek Anchorage, SC: 33* 52.527' N / 78* 34.263' W
Distance: 37 miles
Total Distance: 7,575 miles
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Last night a small cruising sloop with all the right lines for crossing oceans grounded in shallows no more than a couple hundred yards from Kobuk and North Star. As the tide ebbed, the broad hull came to rest on her port chine, tipped over to an angle of about 35 degrees. The mast and rigging looked peculiar in their cant and the occupants of the vessel must have been as uncomfortable with the blatancy of their predicament as they were with the ardors of surviving on such a slope. Standing or sitting would have been out of the question; the only option must have been to lie down on a leeward bunk until the middle of the night when the tide came back in. Of course they were gone in the morning.
The cold is really quite remarkable. It came very close to freezing last night and this morning I had to will myself out of bed. It was reasonably warm under the sleeping bag, but getting up and getting dressed was more or less in the same category with going for a swim in Nova Scotia. I was eager to fire up the little Coleman stove to make coffee and take the edge off the chill, but the preceding evening had drained it of fuel. There was no Coleman fuel left so I had to fill it with gasoline from one of the large jerry cans. Spillage was inevitable, especially with my hands numb from the cold. I wiped it up as best I could, turned on the blower, and lit the Coleman stove. There was no explosion and eventually a cup of warm coffee made its way into my system.
It was hardly enough to keep me warm, though. Fred and I pulled anchor just as the morning sun came above the trees, but the task of taking in the wet anchor gear turned my hands numb. As I was finishing the job, Fred noticed that there was no jet of water coming from the Yamaha so I had to drop anchor again to sort out the problem. It turned out to be nothing more than a clogged aperture that came clean when poked with a length of wire, so the discomfort of pulling anchor twice was a small price to pay for an outboard malfunction that could be so easily solved. For the next three hours as we motored along in the ICW, Kobuk's cabin gradually captured enough heat to remove the chill from my bones. I warmed my hands by sticking them in my armpits--uncomfortable at first but quite successful after a few minutes. But the feet, even though not particularly cold to start with, took hours to thaw. It was almost noon before I stopped exercising my toes to generate heat. The forecast says that tonight the temperature is expected to drop to the mid-twenties.
This part of the South Carolina coast is known as the Grand Strand. On account of its beaches it has become a highly developed region. Golf courses are all over the place as we make our way along the back side of North Myrtle Beach and Myrtle Beach. Homes abutting the ICW are opulent to a degree that I did not notice in North Carolina. At one point I started counting the total number of homes along one side of the channel and noting how many of them had neoclassical columns in their architecture. Nearly half of them did. You can get away with Grecian columns only if the structure is pretty large so that should give you some idea of the level of opulence hereabouts.
This particular area is also somewhat unusual because of its elevation. For the first time since Virginia, the land rises up out of the water as much as a few tens of feet. The ICW engineers cut a straight channel through this "upland" and in one place they hit bedrock. Guides to the waterway refer to this section as The Rock Pile. For about four miles, the channel of the ICW is bordered on both sides by sharks teeth rocks that only break the surface at low tide and that can easily tear the bottom out of any boat. It is considered to be a significant hazard along this route, but it really is not so hard to navigate: all one has to do is stay in the middle of the narrow but straight running channel. The only complication is if a commercial tug happens to be pushing barges through it from the other direction, but the very fact that broad beamed barges pass through here shows how manageable the passage should be for yachts, even the largest of which are much smaller in size. As for the risk of entering The Rock Pile unaware of an oncoming barge--well, that is minimal if you have a VHF radio (like virtually every boat passing through). The chatter on the radio is almost constant. If something so manageable as a modest branch makes its way out into the middle of the channel, boat after boat will send out a message about it, pinpointing its location and forewarning anyone coming up from behind. I should imagine that the presence of a barge in The Rock Pile would set off an avalanche of radio messages that even someone as inattentive as I am would not fail to notice.
Finally around midday we emerge from this overdeveloped causeway and enter the winding Waccamaw River which passes through wilderness swamp lands overrun by a forest of leafless deciduous trees. Small creeks come in from either side and pretty soon every bend in the river and every side creek begins to look like every other one. Once again, the land is very flat and right at water level. The river bank trees have their black roots exposed whenever the tide is out, just like on the Pasquotank River coming out of the Dismal Swamp.
In the heart of this "dreadful" country we come to the tiny hamlet of Bucksport where, according to Fred, there is a little store next to the water that sells especially good sausage. As we approach the dock to tie up, a nearly toothless old man, thin as a scarecrow and black as night, comes out in the harsh cold wind to help us tie off. He beams with pleasure and talks to us in a sort of non-stop fashion. The only problem is, neither Fred nor I can understand anything he says. This doesn't deter him, however, and neither does it diminish his cheer. He comes into the store with us where we shop for sausage. The store is tended by a young woman whose manner of speaking is a whole lot more intelligible to us. She is white and does have teeth, and this combination makes her accented speech seem merely quaint instead of totally foreign. She's well endowed, this young lady, and she manages her domain with good-natured confidence. When Fred and I are back on the water, I cannot help thinking about the nature of Bucksport, this little outpost in the middle of nowhere inhabited by what appears to be no more than two distinctive individuals. There must be other people in town, but you wouldn't know it from the emptiness that engulfs the one little street and the few buildings that we can see. There is a marina with lots of expensive boats nearby, so Bucksport has more to it than I could ever see, but my brief encounter with it will always be tied to the memory of those two--the Black man and the White woman.
By late in the day we reach Thoroughfare Creek coming in on the starboard side. We turn up it to find anchorage. The water is deep; the banks are wilderness; the sun is setting. The second bend up runs against an embankment on its outside and there an exposed slope of sand drops down to the water. At its base, even though it is now high tide, the steepness terminates and a small strand of beach invites Kobuk to come in and tie off. The water is plenty deep all the way to shore so the ebbing tide would not leave us stranded, I think. But then I realize that the wind is blowing strongly on our beam and that could end up dragging Kobuk's stern anchor to put us sideways on the shore. Reluctantly, I back Kobuk away and anchor over in the shallows on the inside of the bend.
Thoroughfare Creek Anchorage: 33* 30.856' N / 79* 08.670 W
Distance: 52 miles
Total Distance: 7,627 miles
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
We leave the anchorage on Thoroughfare Creek and reenter the Waccamaw River. It was already becoming an estuary when we drove the last few miles yesterday, but now that it is augmented by the waters of Thoroughfare Creek it is beginning to look more like a long, skinny lake. Thoroughfare creek is deceptive, actually, because it is not really a separate small stream. It is a distributary from the Great Pee Dee River which has its source way up in the interior of North Carolina. A short distance downstream from here the Great Pee Dee and the Waccamaw join, so this Thoroughfare Creek robs the Pee Dee to pay the Waccamaw in advance of their final reckoning. A little piece of trivia that might interest you is that when Steven Foster first wrote Swannee River he had it singing praises to the Pee Dee. He evidently came to feel that the river name didn't do justice to the song, however, and ended up borrowing the name Swannee from a Florida river (the Suwannee). It was nothing personal, though: he actually never visited either river.
It only takes a few hours to reach Georgetown. This is a small city situated just downstream from the confluence of the Pee Dee and the Waccamaw. It lies protected within a horseshoe of water that is deep all around and that surrounds a small and undeveloped island. Georgetown rings the outer shore with a girdle of docks and piers. Many yachts are moored in the middle of the narrow horseshoe strait. Over on the inside, along the banks of the island, a number of derelict boats are lying canted in the shallows or carelessly tied to a long abandoned dock.
Commercial shrimping is important to the town, but the revitalized downtown and the large amount of dock space dedicated to slips for yachts clearly indicate that retirement condos and visiting yachts are the wave of the future. Close by the city center a paper mill spews billows of white smoke`that curl up into the blue sky. On this day, at least, there is no foul odor hanging in the air so either we are upwind or paper mill operations are not as noxious as they used to be. In spite of the large number of boats in town, not many of them are on the move, so when I find the town dinghy dock its relative emptiness convinces me that it will be ok to tie up Kobuk there overnight. There is a sign saying "No Overnight Docking" but with the busy season over I doubt anyone will notice.
The afternoon is dedicated to errands and obligations--finding the library for Internet, shuttling gas from a distant service station, that sort of thing. At one point Fred and I take a walk for groceries and discover a NAPA store on the way. Last week I replaced the spark plugs in the Mazda engine, and ever since then I have been on the lookout for spare plugs. It is always a little painful to buy them because the engine requires ones that are unconscionably expensive. Furthermore, few stores carry them. This NAPA is no exception, but the man behind the counter tells me he can get them in by 7:30 tomorrow morning. When I ask him the price he says he'll sell them to me at the wholesale price instead of at retail: $7.50 each. Since a single plug usually costs $17-18, I order in enough to last for a few seasons and leave the NAPA store in a remarkably good mood.
Georgetown Dinghy Dock: 33* 21.902' N / 79* 16.978' W
Distance: 17 miles
Total Distance: 7,644 miles
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Last night after dark I strolled the boardwalk that runs along the Georgetown waterfront and turned in at the back entrance to Big Tuna, a bar that caters to the local crowd. While sitting there a lanky, balding loner named Rory started talking politics to me. It seems he is a democrat in a republican stronghold. For thirty odd years he has worked for a cable company installing connections and he has two sons who are reaching the age of total independence. His wife died some years back and he has been raising the boys on his own. One son has excelled in community college and the other has washed out at university. I don't know if Rory ever attended college but I suspect not since he lacks confidence in his own opinions. In spite of the fact that he has succeeded as a single father, he looks with awe at his community college son and seems to defer to the judgments of this young man who may be smart but who obviously has not had much life experience. Rory leaves me at a complete loss. How can a man who has no problem revealing his political persuasion to a total stranger give deference to the opinions of a man-child? At one point, Rory said to me that his republican boss had recently discovered his democratic leanings but didn't appear to be upset by them. Then, to my astonishment, he went on to say that of course if his boss insisted he would vote republican. After all, mused Rory, he wasn't so ungrateful as to bite the hand that has fed him for all these years. These were not his actual words; this is just my interpretation of what he said. I think I understood him correctly, and I am dumbfounded by a good-hearted man who has struggled with life and yet could express such an attitude.
After an early morning trip to the NAPA store to collect my discount spark plugs, I release Kobuk from the dinghy dock and we motor off towards the ICW. At the start, North Star follows a short distance behind, but after a few miles Fred adds a few rpm's and takes the lead. Today's run south takes us through a zone that is mostly marshland. Dead flat islands covered with tall grass lie off to port and sinuous strands of open water separate the islands one from another. Beyond the islands is the Atlantic. The starboard side is the mainland, but even over there the low, flat grasslands often extend a good distance with wooded country rather remote. Much of this region is set aside as public lands that cannot be developed. To the left is the Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge; to the right the Francis Marion National Forest.
It doesn't take us long to reach the little town of McClellanville where an abandoned pier extending out next to a launch ramp has enough space for Kobuk to be tied off. Fred takes North Star out to one of the side channels in the marshlands to anchor, but I snug Kobuk up next to this town pier. McClellanville is a very small town and its flavor is thoroughly southern. Each of the few streets is lined with live oaks draping Spanish moss and the homes do not so much compete with them as nestle under their outstretched arms like chicks in the care of their mother. The channel that serves as a waterfront for the town branches to the inland from the ICW. Its banks are a ragged mixture of grassy marshlands, commercial shrimping docks, and individual homesites with waterfront improvements like retaining walls and small boat docks. There is also a marina, but it is very rustic indeed with sagging docks, a gas pump of the old mechanical type, and a singular lack of personnel to handle whatever business there might be. A stillness pervades the place and the little activity that does occur is at a slow pace.
Two young men notice Kobuk tied to the decrepit pier and walk out to get a better look at her. One of the men is greatly interested in her design and construction because he is in the process of building a boat himself. He is a lawyer up in Georgetown and he stands here on the dock dressed in a pin striped suit with a white shirt and red tie. His name is Sam _____ and his face is so unlined and freshly scrubbed that it is a little hard to believe that he is out of high school. On the other hand, his knowledge of boats and his clearly formed opinions and his penetrating questions about Kobuk quickly convince me that he is no child. His friend is also very young looking and has the sort of sleek, lean physique that rarely lasts beyond adolescence. He, however, is a highly successful contractor who is building megahomes near town for wealthy clients coming from elsewhere. He has just finished a waterfront home only a few hundred yards away and suggests that if I would like I might tie Kobuk at its floating dock. The owners are Belgian and are not yet here in town to take possession of their retirement home. It seems that Kobuk's presence on their property would help to strengthen the illusion that the property is not unoccupied. This contractor may be young, but he certainly has little left to learn about how to extend southern hospitality. I accept his gracious offer and move Kobuk over to the floating dock in front of the mansion with the swimming pool. After sunset, while sitting in the dark drinking tea with the Coleman stove running, I hear breathing in the water beside the boat and the occasional sound of splashing. Dolphins, it seems.
McClellanville Launch Ramp Pier: 33* 04.840' N / 79* 27.600' W
Distance: 29 miles
Total Distance: 7,673 miles
Friday, November 21, 2008
Since leaving Norfolk a few weeks back we have seen nothing of big city life. The passage has been one of isolated anchorages and visits to towns and very small cities, but today that should all change. Charleston is the destination and it qualifies as big by my standards. For most purposes, small urban settlements are easier for Kobuk to deal with because needed facilities are more likely to be near at hand and because prices are almost certain to be lower. But a visit to the big city always portends a little excitement and all the good press that Charleston has garnered over the years has of course raised my expectations.
The cold continues, and now the wind has kicked up from the west. It is rather strong, but for the most part this section of the ICW is narrow enough to discourage the development of choppy conditions. Occasionally, a stretch of it runs in alignment with the wind direction or an estuary joins from the west, and then the waters get riled up a little, but it never amounts to much and it never lasts for more than a few minutes. All that changes when we move out into the open waters surrounding the city of Charleston. It is a singularly bright and sunny day, and so the city waterfront appears as a glistening parade of mostly white buildings all along the distant shore. It is not so distant, really--only about three miles away--but they are upwind miles and the open bay where the Cooper and Ashley Rivers meet is alive with small breakers and frantic little whitecaps. It is force five conditions on the Beaufort scale, although the limited fetch and shallow waters mean that the waves do not build to any significant height (but also leave no room between themselves). It is an abrupt transition and as soon as we start the crossing Kobuk begins to buck and plunge, throwing sheets of spray high in the air.
I become focused on steering with the cranky Remote Troll which hasn't sufficient agility to keep us easily pointed into the stuff. A great metallic crashing sound issues forth from behind me and when I look around I am suddenly reminded that the Coleman stove was still set up on the engine box. It lies now on its side, down on the floor next to the Bike Friday suitcase. The gas canister with its long stem has been flung free and sits amidships behind the front seat. The rollicking ride continues non-stop, but eventually I get a five second window in which to retrieve the pieces and stow them up in the cabin.
A half an hour is about all it takes to close with the waterfront of Charleston and that takes the spirit out of all the thrashing around--rather like a wild bronc that after launching and twisting and changing direction finally gets tired and settles into a predictable routine of bucking. Kobuk and North Star work their way up the Ashley river, close by the peninsula between the two rivers. Fred looks for an anchorage while I scan the shoreline for a place to tie off. Upstream we go, passing under a high bridge and then a side-by-side pair of low bascule bridges, but still there is no sign of a good place to park. A marina crowds the shore immediately upstream from the bascule bridges, but then all development disappears as a waterfront park comes into view. It has a couple long docks that extend out and the second of them appears to have the double advantage of standing in a state of disrepair and having at its end a ramp running down to a floating dock. I can see nobody in the park and the pier looks abandoned. The wind is coursing down the river at a furious pace, but a neck of marshland immediately upstream cuts the fetch of open water down to only a few hundred yards and so the floating dock has no waves splashing against it. Through the binoculars, the floating dock appears to be mottled in bird shit, but that's alright: it looks like the kind of place where people don't venture much and the authorities don't check much. Of course, with temperatures as cold as this not many people are likely to be out, but even at the best of times I think this little stretch of parkland probably gets underutilized. I steer Kobuk in and tie off there. Good news: it's not bird shit--its snails.
Brittlebank Park Pier: 32* 47.299' N / 79* 57.798' W
Distance: 43 miles
Total Distance: 7,716 miles
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Charleston is the kind of place where you're nobody if your house only dates back to the 1800's. Down in the historic core, it is street after street of restored homes from the colonial era. We're not talking antebellum mansions here; the scene is bourgeois clapboard or brick--two- or maybe three-story buildings of a size and style that whisper "prosperity." There's nothing nouveau riche about these houses, nothing intended to make a grand proclamation. They're substantial and handsome and eminently practical. Most have deep porches along the side and many have enclosed gardens with broadly spreading shade trees.
There are many more modest homes too, of course, but here in Charleston they have all been restored and all look perfectly charming. If I had to live in a city and the gods had decreed that it must be in a house that is chosen at random, I would beg for the city to be Charleston. There just don't appear to be any run-down houses left to be renovated. The whole place has been given a new coat of paint. Every brick wall is scrubbed clean. Wrought iron fences and gates are all fully rustproofed and most likely painted black. Most astonishing of all is the fact that the relatively few buildings of recent construct do not stand out; they have varied architecture but it always seems to fit right in.
Of course I am talking here about historic Charleston, everything down near the end of the peninsula that separates the Cooper and the Ashley. Go north of Calhoun Street and things change fast. I only ventured across the tracks a few times, and each time I did the telltale signs of urban blight quickly appeared to chase me away. But there's a lot to Charleston south of Calhoun--plenty to do and plenty to see.
One thing you see a lot of is coeds. The College of Charleston is located downtown and has the sort of urban campus that is more common overseas than it is in the United States. Instead of a fixed campus on a single block of land, the college appears to be splintered into many fragments--a majority of the buildings in the two or three blocks where it is most concentrated and then a few buildings in the immediately surrounding blocks. Businesses, residences, and the college intermingle. In this particular part of the city, young people rule the streets. Most noticeable to me is the young women, who, to put it bluntly, are never fat and never ugly. I never saw a place with such a high percentage of good looking women. One immediately thinks of Vegas, of course, but even in Vegas the undeniable bevy of beauty is occasionally adulterated, so to speak, with plain Janes from out of town. One can hardly deny that some sort of dictatorial authority governs architecture south of Calhoun, but even more surprising is the evidence of a similar power governing the appearance of the women who live here.
I should be fair about this, however--there are some very fine places to visit north of Calhoun. One of them is the Charleston Visitors' Center. It is housed in a long, brick building, a restored structure of course that used to be a railroad shed. The place is full of a lot more than brochures. Longer than a football field, the interior space has planked floors and a post & beam roof construction. The vast space is artfully partitioned into separate zones by various exhibits and one can do everything from buying local crafts or viewing light show videos to enquiting after directions or making reservations. Everywhere you look are museum-like wall exhibits designed to stimulate your appreciation of the remarkable history of this city. Of all the visitors I have ever visited, nothing compares to this. It is to visitors' centers what the Beijing Olympics was to Olympics.
I remain at the bar in the The Kickin' Chicken until late in the evening. The beer was good, but far, far better is the news repeatedly being broadcast by the television on the wall behind the bartender: the University of Utah football team has just slapped around BYU to complete an undefeated season. On this upbeat note, I bicycle back to Kobuk in the dark. The strong winds have died away now, but the temperature is going to slide down into the twenties again tonight so there is no time to waste getting undressed and into the sleeping bag.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Have you ever heard of "the stone fleet"? I never had. I'm in the process of reading a book by Eric Jay Dolin entitled Leviathan (a history of American whaling) and in it there is a discussion of an event that occurred here in Charleston during the Civil War. The Union was anxious to make effective the blocade that it was trying to impose on the Confederacy. To this end, the idea was conceived that sunken ships at the entrance into Savannah and Charleston harbors could accomplish through engineering what was proving to be a difficult task when performed by naval personnel in off-shore ships. Why not sink a bunch of ships at the entrance to the harbors, thereby obstructing all passage in and out? Over a dozen ships were purchased for the task, the bulk of them whaling vessels that had seen better days. A big effort was made to load them all up with stones. Farmers were paid fifty cents per ton for rocks to fill them and some New England villages engaged in "stone drives" whereby rocks were collected. Although supposedly a secret maneuver, the stone fleet idea was so grand in scale that many came to know about it and some newspapers even reported on the preparations. When at last the ships were ready, skeleton crews sailed them down to Georgia and South Carolina and attempted to execute the plan. When the confederates saw the arrival of the fleet, they were sure an invasion was under way. In order to forestall such a calamity they began sinking ships at the entrance to Charleston harbor. Such is the absurdity of war.
Charleston was fortunate to have been left relatively undamaged by the Civil War, which is of course a major reason why the city now in the twenty-first century can display to the world such a fabulous collection of restored buildings dating back to before that event. Of all the ports in the American South before the Civil War, Charleston was the one most involved in importing and auctioning slaves. This black history exists now only in the abstract. The local museums must articulate this unfortunate aspect of Charleston's past, but none of the public monuments do. There are numerous memorials in public spaces scattered throughout the city, but they generally honor those who have fallen in battle. A few glorify powerful politicians but I didn't happen to come across any designed to preserve the memory of injustice done to Blacks in those darker days. Perhaps I just happened to miss them, but if I didn't it might not be a bad idea for the city to undertake the construction of such a memorial. I do not wish to berate Charleston for having mistreated Blacks. There's blame enough for everybody, Northerners too. It is just that Charleston's intimate history means that such a memorial in such a place would have the potential to be particularly meaningful.
After dark when I return to Kobuk in Brittlebank Park, there is nobody about and no indication that anyone has visited the pier in the last couple days. I have been a little nervous about leaving Kobuk unattended but it seems the concern is unfounded. Even though the park is within the city it does not attract much use at this time of year. Although it remains quite cold, the wind has laid down. I have a cup of coffee before going to bed. The Coleman stove takes the chill out of the tented air. In the dark, I sip the coffee and absorb the sort of solitude that usually can only be found when beyond the range of city lights.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Leaving Charleston is like leaving any big city: you have to work your way out past the suburbs. But a boat navigating waterways will find that the suburbs are hardly ever seedy and almost always upscale. Waterfront property is expensive and those who can afford to buy it are generally able to develop it in a rather grand way. As we leave Charleston behind and make our way up the Stono River, the homes along both banks sing to each other in C-notes.
What is this craving nearly all of us seem to have? This insatiable desire to accumulate more and ever more? No matter what our material circumstance we always seem to behave as if we do not have enough. We all tend to believe that we do not have enough, that for others richer than us the accumulated wealth is sufficient to meet any reasonable contingency but for us personally it is not. We can, therefore, understand the needy attitude of those less fortunate but we often find it mysterious that those with greater wealth still pursue it.
But the telling thing is not what people say, or even think. It is what they do, and only rarely does a person give up the struggle to get richer. It is something that does occasionally happen among those who are wealthy but even within this group a very large proportion continue to accumulate. They do so either out of personal desire or because their circumstance causes it to happen with no effort on their part. The former calls into question the rationality of human behavior; the latter casts doubt on the equity of the economic system. In either event, something is disfunctional.
If one were suspended above the ICW, high enough to see the wriggling waterways and islands and marshes but low enough to see the individual homes and boats and docks and even people, then the sight down below would consist of wealth manifest in many forms. All those estates are of course physical sign of great affluence, but so to is that parade of yachts making its way southward along the waterway. Even a superficial familiarity with life in the United States would make it clear that one cannot venture into this particular domain and feel perfectly at ease unless one is accustomed to an above average level of wealth. I would contend, however, that there is a small difference between the boat owners and the home owners. A significant minority of the boat owners have taken the money and run. They have chosen to plateau at a certain level of wealth and then use what they have to live in a way that turns its back on ambition. I suspect that few of the home owners have done such a thing.
Of course, fotr the boaters, the choice often was made easier by the spectre of old age. If one were to do a demographic study of the transient yachting subculture, there would surely reveal the fact that most of us are no longer young. Retirement, or the prospect of it, forces recognition of the fact that the pursuit of wealth cannot go on forever. What we have here is a group of people who see death coming along in not too many years and who thus conclude that now is the only time left to do the things always dreamed of. Not all these people are nice people, but a surprisingly large proportion of them are happy. Although it is hard to do much boating without a certain modicum of wealth, I would say that boating is a far more reliable indicator of happiness than raw affluence ever will be.
Once Kobuk moves beyond the reach of Charleston, beyond its suburbs and signs of development, the domain is one in which wooded isles and marshes float by on either side. No more homes , no more docks, just reclusive nature trying to survive in one of her remaining niches. The yachts pass through but do not tarry. Small outboard-driven skiffs appear at times, either still in the water as one or two sportsmen cast their lines, or racing down the channel between home and a favored fishing site.
When North Star and Kobuk reach the Ashepoo River, Fred and I direct them a couple miles out of the ICW and into Allegator Creek where a very small settlement lines the outside of a bend. It is on a low embankment and looks across the narrow creek to a sea of marsh grass with wooded isles in the distance. Up past the shrimp boats and the handful of houses, at the edge of town where the water gets shallower, we drop anchor and wonder whether we will remain afloat when the tide ebbs.
Mosquito Creek Anchorage: 32* 33.422' N / 80* 27.014' W
Distance: 48 miles
Total Distance: 7,764 miles
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
No, we didn't stay afloat. Low tide put Kobuk's stern in the mud. I awoke in the middle of the night to discover this, but because of her hull shape Kobuk had come to rest contentedly in an upright position. I had no trouble going back to sleep. It was rather less comfortable for Fred who found himself trying to sleep with North Star tipped over onto one chine. No harm done, however, and in the morning when it is time to leave the tide is up and all is well.
In preceding days, we have been fortunate to catch the tide at favorable times and run with the current more often than against it. But today our luck runs out and we spend most of the voyage pushing against the flow. It matters little since Beaufort, our destination, is only 25 miles away. We chug along at barely more than five miles per hour and the slow motion passage of scenery is even more amenable to examination than usual.
When up in the region of the Grand Strand--the northeastern end of the South Carolina shore--I described the ICW as a channel that parallels the coast and takes advantage of natural lagoons lying behind long,skinny coastal barrier islands. That description no longer adheres. Here in the southern parts of the state--and evidently through coastal Georgia as well--there are myriad rivers, short, fat, curly rivers that meander senselessly from the inland to the sea. They twist and bend into fully formed oxbows. They bump into each other, joining waters and then separating again. They grow fat or skinny at a whim. They traverse a flat lowland with no sense of direction, seeming to reach the sea more by chance than by design. It is almost as if emptying into the ocean is no more desirable for them than a ball dropping out of play might be for someone playing a pinball machine.
Here the engineering of the ICW must have been a less predictable task. Which stretch of which rivers to use and which rivers to merely get across? These must have been the pressing questions since each river runs parallel with the coast only for short sections and then the route must deviate from the intended route until such time as a different river swings by close and a short canal can be dug to connect them. This state of affairs causes the ICW to weave and dodge in its journey from A to B. Georgia, for example, has a hundred miles of Atlantic coast but the ICW takes a hundred and forty miles to cover the distance.
After slogging up against a current and a headwind in a ten-mile stretch of broadwaters on the Coosaw River, we bear left and run down the last few miles to Beaufort. After passing under the bridge the town waterfront is off the right side and sweeps around like the warm embrace of a single arm. First after the bridge is the town's waterfront park; then comes the marina; after that the town dock; and finally a broad belly of open water in which boats can anchor. North Star goes to anchor and Kobuk sneaks in to the town dock.
This is a town with a reputation for beauty and, just as with women, beauty can shape the personality. Beaufort expects to be treated well--by which I mean one is supposed to spend money here. The marina has leased its waterfront from the city, but with a proviso that any passing boater can get fresh water free of charge and can use use the showers for just one dollar. Of course the marina doesn't advertise this fact and has water available only on the docks where there are signs cautioning that only slip holders and their guests will not be prosecuted for trespassing. Another sign that Beaufort is a "high maintneance" city is the slightly inflated prices in the restaurants and stores. But now let me say that the Chamber of Commerce mentality is completely divorced from the human reality: Every person I met--every one--treated me with the kind of hospitality that mocks the meaning of the word "cordial."
Beaufort Town Dock: 32* 25.851' N / 80* 40.526' W
Distance: 25 miles
Total Distance: 7,789 miles
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
It is surprisingly quiet here in Beaufort. It may be near the end of the migratory season for boaters heading south but I had expected more traffic than this. On the other hand, over a dozen boats are anchored out and I suppose most of them are here only temporarily. My situation is at the center of things, though, here at the town dock where all dinghys come to tie up whenever the anchored crowd wants to go ashore. There are usually a couple dinghys tied off here, but compared to Beaufort, North Carolina, the shuttle traffic seems meager. I would have expected virtually all those anchored boats to have dinghys ashore for much of the day.
The outer side of the town dock has a sign on it saying that no boats may be tied off between one and six in the morning. This sort of regulation often can be violated by a boat as small as Kobuk, but especially when the dockside traffic is light. Even though this outer side of the dock had no other visitors yesterday while Kobuk was tied here, I worried that the town might be aggressive about enforcing the rule. Late in the evening when the other anchored boats were dark silhouettes on glossy water, under a starry sky, I took Kobuk out away from the dock and dropped the hook.
Beaufort is pronounced as in beautiful, and rightly so. The town occupies a neck of land surrounded by an oxbow bend of the Beaufort River. The heavily forested town site is flat but stands a few feet above the level of the river. Between the land and the river lie marshes that in most places advance well out into the channel but that occasionally disappear altogether, allowing the low bluffs to drop directly into the water. The wooded nature of the town is a consequence of landscape design over a long period of time. Most of the trees are live oaks and many of them are draped in Spanish moss. In all the older parts of town, rows of them line the streets. Their limbs arch over the roads and snake their way across the yards of residences, sometimes extending impossible distances up between buildings. The branches of a live oak are octopus tentacles: they flex and weave themselves into spaces as if they have an independent will, separate and autonomous from the great trunk that supports them. The child's fantasy of great bowering and sheltering trees with trunks that cana be climbed and limbs sufficiently big and horizontal to walk out on--that is the live oak.
Live oaks are a regular feature of these southern coastal towns, but here in Beaufort they knit together into a near forest in the shade of which are streets and yards and even the low roofs of single story dwellings. Many of the homes are not single story, however, but instead antebellum estates comparable in scale and infinitely superior in taste to the megahomes that are springing up these days all across the country. Like Charleston, Beaufort has taken seriously the business of discouraging the destruction of these old homes and fostering their restoration. There appear to be only a few left that have not been, or are not being, revived. With their great broad porches and colonnaded entries, these manors of yesteryear are reminding all who see them of how charming life might be if we had not created for ourselves the megacities and planned commercial hubs that define contemporary life. Here in Beaufort, commerce is conducted along Bay Street which parallels the riverfront and maintains a proper respect for modesty of scale and style. Of course, a couple miles outside of town, strip mall development is as unconstrained as anywhere else in the United States. We Americans always seem to want it both ways: the convenience of cars and parking lots and megastores on the one hand and the reassurance of more natural living on the other. Will someone in this country please come along and prove that the two are not incompatible?
Thursday, November 27, 2008
The _____ Church here in Beaufort provides a free Thanksgiving dinner for anybody who wishes to attend. This is not a glorified soup kitchen with the word "charity" written all over it: it is a banquet offered to everyone in a spirit of giving. A large church hall with room for hundreds of people fills to capacity as dozens of townsfolk wait on us at out round tables. These waiters and waitresses and waiters are most attentive. They do not interfere but they constantly watch to see who needs a plate cleared away, who needs more to drink, who might like seconds or thirds. If you are fussy, they cater to your fussiness. If you want to eat more than is reasonable, they encourage you to do it. If you would like thirds for dessert, they lullaby you with the choices. They are more attentive and yet far less obsequious than the staff in most gourmet restaurants who do their job primarily for the killer tips they expect to receive.
The feast is available between twelve thirty and three in the afternoon. If you want a meal but don't want to eat it here or during these hours, there is a separate room where you can simply pick up thanksgiving meals to go. It is all the same dishes, just packed up and ready to carry away. As if that is not enough, anyone who eats their Thanksgiving meal here is encouraged to go to that separate room if they would like to take home food for the evening. It is a bit overwhelming to be given as much as you can eat and then encouraged to take even more. Maybe I shouldn't have been so harsh in my judgment of Beaufort yesterday: in spite of the signs of commercial avarice, there is rather more to the town than I realized.
Friday, November 28, 2008
Up goes the temperature but down comes the rain. At last we have a night that is not frigid and a day that may at least approach the norm for this time of year. The stiletto stars and cheery sun are gone, though, hidden away behind a dirty white spread of continuous cloud. The forecast is for a string of such days, each with a high chance of precipitation. Today we do have intermittent rain that taps the canvas and the forward deck with gentle persistence. But then it stops, only to begin again a while later. There is not a hint of thunderstorms, though, and only once does the drum of rainfall intensify to any sort of dramatic level.
It used to be that weather forecasts were firm predictions, but nowadays that is not true. When it comes to rain, even NOAA is given to assigning it odds: "There is a fifty percent chance of rain for Friday." That's a scientific way of saying "I don't know," but at least it doesn't give the impression of knowledge that in fact does not exist. NOAA has to be careful, of course, since its forecasts are used by boaters. What it amounts to is that on a good day even the greenest amateur in a leaky old boat probably will be able to muddle through but on a sufficiently bad day even the most seaworthy boat and most experienced captain are at risk. Every boater who goes beyond his own backyard must make a judgment about which conditions would be manageable and which would not. It's easy enough to misjudge the craft and the skills; even easier is it to anticipate the wrong weather conditions.
How much responsibility do weather forecasters have for providing accurate information about an unknown future? Even if a forecast is right about the general nature of things, weather conditions vary enormously from place to nearby place and no contemporary technology can reasonably address this problem. And as it happens, every single boat always operates in a very specific place. Given this reality, it is hard to see how a weather forecast can be held responsible for the misfortune of an overmatched boater. Nevertheless, I have been led to believe that NOAA has been sued by shipwrecked boaters who claimed the forecast was at fault. This has had the perverse effect that you might expect: many small boat captains believe that NOAA issues weather forecasts for stronger winds and bigger waves and more likely thunderstorms than actually are expected, and this in turn encourages those same captains to venture out when they might not if they actually believed NOAA.
At this time of year, daylight does not arrive until seven in the morning and twilight sets in around five. Given that the little Yamaha can only average about six miles per hour, the maximum range for a day is not much more than fifty miles. The actual distance covered can vary a lot depending on whether one catches favorable or adverse tidal currents. It would be unwise to plan on more than fifty miles in a day unless the big engine is going to be used for a while. I avoid this as much as possible because it consumes so much gas, but one of its great comforts is that whenever there is a need to reach protection quickly--before dark or before a storm--it will get me there. It makes no sense to plan on having to use it, though, at least not here in the ICW where anchorages abound and surface conditions are usually manageable for the little outboard.
Our plan for today is to reach Georgia. The Savannah River forms the border with South Carolina, but the city of Savannah is about an hour's cruising removed from the ICW. Neither Fred nor I are set on visiting Savannah, so we plan to stop at Thunderbolt, a small town not far from Savannah that is on the ICW. We reach Thunderbolt by around four in the afternoon. Fred anchors nearby and I take a slip at the Bahia Bleu Marina located right next to the downtown. From here to the Florida border, the ICW will pass through mostly undeveloped wilderness. There is no way of knowing whether I will be able to establish an Internet connection during the next two or three days, so I think it best to get my work completely caught up here at Bahia Bleu using their wifi hotspot.
Bahia Bleu Marina, Thunderbolt, GA: 32* 01.901' N / 81* 02.891' W
Distance: 46 miles
Total Distance: 7,835 miles
Saturday, November 29, 2008
Now we're into the wilder stretch of Georgia's coast. Not long after leaving Thunderbolt we curl around a hairpin bend with the little town of Isle of Hope strung along its outer perimeter. And that is it--for the next seventy miles or so there will be little sign of human presence. The ICW runs all over the place trying to connect up the crazy collection of streams and sloughs and estuaries hereabouts. Its wanders erratically like the frantic efforts of a novice shepherd struggling with a headstrong herd of sheep.
Everywhere you look there are but three elements to the landscape: waterways, marshes and hammocks. The waterways are numerous and course through the marshes all over the place. Although tiny at their marshland headwaters, these estuarine streams quickly flare out to become broad (but not very deep) swaths of open water. They occupy a significant proportion of the entire landscape--perhaps as much as a quarter of it. But their territory is much less than that of the marshes that often sweep away in all directions with their uniform swampgrass vegetation and their pancake profile. If the sun is shining at all, the marsh grasses glisten brilliantly golden with a hint of rust at their roots and a tinge of lime at their tips. By natural design, these marsh grasses grow to a uniform height of just a few feet. From my low position, sitting in Kobuk's cabin, I can barely see over the top of the marshland grasses, but in most any larger boat the vista would be across a sea of grass with a warren of waterways etched into it. Off in all directions, sometimes very nearby but often in the middle distance and occasionally far away, the hammocks will put a limit to the marshland sweep. These hammocks are thickly wooded islands where palmettos and other subtropical trees create emerald havens in a sea of gold. They are an archipelago containing everything from islets barely large enough to walk the dog to long strips of land that run for a few miles.
The hammocks are uplands, of course, but their elevation above the marshland is no more substantial than a coral atoll in the vast Pacific. Only their trees give them the illusion of substance. They also give the illusion of paradise. Each small island of green beckons to you and invites you to come ashore and stay a while. But alas they are so often unapproachable. At high the water will rise up into thek grasses and flood them at their roots, but only with a skim of water--insufficient to approach with an ordinary boat. And then when the tide ebbs so that the marshes are not inundated, the land will not have sufficient time to dry before the next flooding. Waterlogged and muddy, the marsh land would not be an easy place to tramp around. So the emerald isles remain out of easy reach, often tantalizingly close but not close enough to step ashore. Only for some of them does an estuary pass along side and make access by boat an easy matter.
Arching above this great horizontal land, the sky is half the world and clouds become passing landscape features, tantalizingly out of reach but hardly more so than the hammocks. Under the great blue dome, Kobuk and North Star creep by myriad obscure places with their names on the chart as the only signs that humans have taken an interest in them: Skidaway Narrows, Pigeon Island, Moon River, Petite Gauke Island, Ogeechee River, Florida Passage and Kilkenny Creek, St Catherines Sound and Walburg Island. Finally, we head down the narrow waters of Johnson Creek and, at mile mark 625 of the ICW, turn left to anchor in the quickly shoaling waters of Cattle Pen Creek. To the north and west and to the south, marshes run away to distant hammocks. Off to the east, the somewhat less distant perimeter of St Catherines Island consumes the sun's slanting afternoon rays.
Cattle Pen Creek Anchorage: 31* 38.675' N / 81* 27.579' W
Distance: 42 miles
Total Distance: 7,877 miles
Sunday, November 30, 2008
The clouds and rain have returned. In the early morning we depart from Cattle Pen Creek under a wooly gray cap and work our way southward against a contrary wind. At first, the ebbing tide assists us, but when we enter the Altamaha River and zag right to ascend it for a few miles, our forward progress dips to the pace of a brisk walk. North Star is holding back in order to match Kobuk's rate of speed and the two of us are sluggish little specks on this big, broad river.. A long, sleek launch named Mad Max passes by like a charger galloping into battle and as her murderous wake rolls inescapably nearer, I begin to think of joining the brigade. It takes a while to rationalize the use of Mazda power, but eventually I justify the change on the grounds that the long day will require use of the big engine sometime today anyway. First the blower goes on. Then the little Yamaha is throttled back and shifted into neutral, and then turned off. As always, Kobuk immediately veers off course to become broadside to the wind and I make my way aft to tilt the little engine out of the water. Off goes the blower and non with the ignition switch for the Mazda. She displays her usual cough and sputter at low rpm's, but as soon as the bucket is lifted and we are in forward gear I can raise the power of the engine to its comfortable level and steer Kobuk back on course. I run her up to 5200 rpm's and slowly Kobuk accelerates. Her nose rears into the air and hesitates there for nearly a minute before finally dropping down and flattening out to make her fast moves. We run along now with a real breeze blowing through the open clamshell top and swiftly make up the mile or two of distance between us and North Star. I radio Fred that I am going to run on ahead for a few miles until reaching a place where I expect the current to be more favorable. Kobuk gradually accelerates and her nose finally drops. Then we run down North Star who was far ahead of us and I throttle back to talk with Fred on the radio. I explain that I'm going up ahead for a few miles to get where the current might be a little less contrary and he urges me to show Mad Max what a turn of speed really is. I like the idea and Kobuk lights out after the yellow and white greyhound running far ahead. The distance between us narrows steadily until her stern is within Babe Ruth range, but then she suddenly settles differently a greater turmoil of of churning water issues from her stern. After that, the race is more even, but little Kobuk keeps nipping at her heels and closes the gap to an ungentlemanly distance. Mad Max knows it is only a matter of time, so after catching her Kobuk releases her and we switch back over to sedate cruising.
It is well past four and the sun will be setting in less than an hour. We are making our way along Jekyll Creek, approaching the bridge that crosses to Jekyll Island. Progress is slow but it suits the circumstances: it is near low tide and the narrow, black waters of Jekyll Creek are uncomfortably shallow for North Star. To both port and starboard, sinister muck runs back from the edge of the water so flat and low that it can only be distinguished from the water itself by the fact that it supports no ripples or waves. We squeak through, though, and with a little daylight remaining we both tie off at a handsome floating dock next to a broad launch ramp just south of the bridge.
Fred is reluctant to engage in the sneaky practice of tieing off in places like this where there surely must be regulations against overnight docking. I do it with Kobuk all the time, but it is a lot easier to get away with when you have a boat that looks more like a dinghy than a liveaboard. It is fair to say that Fred avoids such juvenile behavior but tolerates it in me, and this works to his advantage today since a fellow named Doc reassures me that it will be ok to use the dock for overnighting. I communicate the message to Fred and in short order North Star is tied up immediately in front of Kobuk.
Doc is an odd duck, a maritime hermit with a black beard and wild black hair. He is postrail thin and well past the age of your average vagabond. He claims to actually be a doctor (a pathologist!) and also to have taken his Pearson sailboat around the world. His boat is right here tied to the dock, on the other side of Kobuk from North Star, and she looks so unkept that one might wonder what would happen if ever a sail were raised or the engine started. Her decks and saloon top are laden with an believable variety of second hand goods--the sorts of things that a pack rat would not be able to pass up. On the other hand, Doc is knowledgable about all sorts of things and full of ideas and concepts that reveal both knowledge and creativity. You meet all sorts when you're on the water.
Jekyll Island Launch Ramp Dock: 31* 02.541' N / 81* 25.388' W
Distance: 58 miles
Total Distance: 7,935 miles
Monday, December 1, 2008
Today we treat as a layover day, and with sunny skies accompanying us we cycle around to look at the Jekyll Island scenery. It is a famous island, of course, largely because of the historic Jekyll Island Club that was constructed back in the 1880's. Exclusive, elitist, and segregated, the Jekyll Island Club was a retreat for the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, and the like. Its historic exclusivity is now looked upon as unfortunate, of course--and especially since it barred Blacks--but even today your average rich guy is reluctant to mingle with the ordinary people. It is acceptable, and even desirable to do so at a superficial level, but when it comes to home life and personal relaxation the wealthy still prefer to avoid the unwashed.
The Jekyll Island Club continued to operate up until World War II, but then had to close its doors. The delightful structure has been restored and opened to the public, but now the whole of Jekyll Island is once again becoming a retreat if not for the super-wealthy then at least for those who cannot conceive of getting by on an average American income. Real estate is, to put it mildly, pricey. A growing array of resort facilities cater exclusively to the upper end of the market. In once sense, the place is less exclusive than it used to be: anybody is welcome to visit here. If you are going to do anything that involves spending money, though, you had better have a lot of it.
The island is truly lovely, and the beauty is a blend of both natural and fabricated landscapes. If it weren't for the fabricated landscapes--the golf courses and nature trails and planted palms and grand buildings like the Jekyll Island Club--the island would be just another link in Georgia's chain of pretty coastal islands. It would be nice to look at but a more or less impenetrable thicket if you were to step ashore on the inland side. Along the outside, it has of course its own share of the broad and endless beach that seems to run all the way from New Jersey to Florida. That beach is is a lovely constant, a place of lonely charm--until you fill it with people. The one good thing, though, is that these beaches are so broad and so long that it is very hard to fill them. In this respect, most of the eastern shore has an advantage over southern California where grand beaches often have big cities like Los Angeles and San Diego to fill them up. The beaches of the eastern shore are a tremendous draw, but those who arrive here rarely step ashore from a boat: their unremitting linearity offers the sailor no protection when the wind and waves come rolling in.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
We are making our way down the Cumberland Sound, closing in on the Florida border. The vast nature preserve of Cumberland Island is off to port and the darkened outlines of buildings in the Kings Point Naval Base are barely visible on shore to starboard. The sky is clear and the waterway quiet. North Star leads and Kobuk follows at a distance. Without warning, a bright red inflatable comes roaring up from behind and hails Kobuk. It is manned by two sailors in orange life jackets. The one aft is piloting the vessel but the one forward is positioned behind a machine gun, pointing it in Kobuk's general direction but well above our heads. I shut down the Yamaha and one of them yells to me over the water, asking that we move to the starboard side of the channel and leave our bow towards shore. I cooperate, although since the port side of the channel is closer I let them know that we will be heading there instead. Their silence suggests that this is acceptable. I motor off that way while the inflatable holds a fixed position until we have executed the maneuver. Then the inflatable leaves us there and heads down sound. Up where it came from there now appears a sleek black form that, except for its anomolous conning tower, could be the Loch Ness monster. As it comes past, a contingent of the crew is standing on the back of the beast, only a few feet above water level. It runs silently by and when a respectable amount of time has passed I take Kobuk back out into the channel to continue our voyage.
Think of the devastation that might be inflicted by a nuclear sub with missiles and warheads. Here is one headed out to sea. I find absurd the notion that little Kobuk might be a threat to such a fighting machine. Reason dictates that it is not absurd, especially in this day of suicide bombers, but at some mysterious level the vulnerability of a nuclear sub is almost laughable. When you see one of these vessels you cannot help but feel its sinister power, but can it really be that a little home-built boat made of three-eights inch plywood and lots of paint could send it to the bottom? Yes, it can be, and perhaps that shows the foolishness of viewing anything as impossible.
There is another feeling that I have to confess came over me when Kobuk and I were evicted from the channel: resentment. I suppose gratitude would be more appropriate, considering that the ship of war is on a duty run to protect America. Or perhaps pride would be in order as the discipline of our military is so evidently displayed. But, no, I feel resentment. That the interests of the country should be put ahead one person's whims is eminently reasonable and this is not what bothers me. Neither is it the obvious and well-recognized fact that practical reality sensibly trumps the technicalities of right-of-way on the water. It is the presumption of authority in this instance. I feel like a grade school student who in the eyes of the Great Teacher has misbehaved and must go stand in the corner facing the wall as punishment. Maybe it is (or used to be) effective with children, but I don't think grown-ups benefit from such treatment. Of course, nobody was trying to punish me, but the idea of forcing me to face Kobuk away from this massive ship of war betrays an attitude that my rights no longer matter once a nuclear sub brings me into its magic circle.
The more power one entity has over another, the more important it is that there be some sort of show of mutual respect. I can recognize my insignificance in the face of such force, but it is impossible for me not to resent being treated as insignificant. If I feel this way as an American who lives under the great military umbrella, of which this submarine is but a small part, just imagine how a foreigner is primed to feel whenever the American military presence looms up over the horizon. One of the lessons that the military must learn, I think, is that it now has to deal with individuals rather than just states. This lesson is already being learned; our military leaders are many times more sensitive to personal feelings than they were even a generation ago. But so far, the concept of respect for the individual is an abstract, intellectual one that--when push comes to shove--must be temporarily shunted aside if American interests are to be properly protected. I believe experience will prove this fallacious. Nowadays, individuals who feel violated--even if they are not, really--have at their disposal extraordinarily destructive means of striking back.
I do have to say, though, that the sub's silent passage left me awestruck.
Now at last we reach the ________ River and cross over into Florida. I need to confess my bias up front. I have not expected there to be much to my liking in Florida. I have been expecting to find it over-developed, over-hyped, and over-priced. This is perhaps unfair since I haven't even visited the state since Eisenhower was president, but at least it means that my low expectations will give the place a chance. Anyway, when we arrive at Fernandina Beach it turns out to be a good start. The anchoring basin is thick with boats and the marina is busy, but when Kobuk lays to the little dock next to the launch ramp and I get a chance to cycle along the main drag, there is a certain orchestrated old-world charm to it that sucks me in. Plus, the pelicans hanging around down by Kobuk in the harbor are polite and respectful. Believe me, that is unusual.
Fernandina Launch Ramp, FL: 30* 40.216' N / 81* 27.938' W
Distance: 31 miles
Total Distance: 7,966 miles
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
On this first full day in Florida, my stereotypes begin to take a beating. Particularly surprising are the extensive stretches of undeveloped land along both sides of the waterway. We move along in a natural lagoon most of the time and its banks support more marshes and subtropical forest than I ever would have have thought likely. Housing developments do intrude from time to time, but they are in truth exceptional and not the norm. Of course, we are in northern Florida where tourism has not been unleashed on the landscape to the same degree as farther south in places like the Daytona,Vero, and Palm Beaches. And after all, the coast of Georgia that has only just been put behind us was one of the wildest stretches of coast south of Nova Scotia. This is, I suppose, a sort of transition zone. Whatever my rationalization, the Florida scene thus far is better than I thought it would be. We make a short day of it, but the few hours spent on the water are lovely cruising with no hassles, no pressures, and lots of sun.
Just before the ICW intersects the St. Johns River, a public park with wide launch ramps and lengthy piers parallelling the shore comes into view. Fred has been here before and knows that one can usually tie off for the night free of charge. We take advantage of the situation and no sooner get settled than a sprightly man appears on the dock with questions on his mind about the queer nature of Kobuk. He is an employee of NOAA and his job is to encourage the captains of ships--but especially commercial ships--with carrying on board instruments that measure such weather variables as temperature, pressure, and wind direction. He is charged with recruiting ocean-going vessels that will voluntarily collect weather data while at sea.
Sisters Creek Bridge: 30* 23.696' N / 81* 27.579' W
Distance: 23 miles
Total Distance: 7,989 miles
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Fred and I part ways today. Utah beckons and Kobuk will have to spend a month or so in St. Augustine, waiting for my return. The ICW takes us by the heart of the city and then when signs of the city wither away our two boats come to a slough running in from the starboard side. The charts indicate that it is navigable on up towards the back side of the city. At this junction I turn right and Fred carries on straight ahead. He pauses to see me off and North Star emits a long, friendly peal from her horn. Kobuk responds but her voice is not strong. Fred and I wave to each other as the distance between us expands.
This little waterway known as the San Sebastian River wriggles left and right and collapses quickly on both sides. We carry on for a mile or two until coming to a rash of marinas. I pick the most rustic looking one on the principle that the charge for using up space in the water will be less extreme there because the boats that look less fancy. The call turns out to be accurate: Oyster Creek Marina is a simpler operation than usual and the young manager even has a half-sunken, highly unstable floating dock that he will rent at a discounted price. Since the dock is in an isolated and relatively inaccessible part of the marina, I think it is a good deal. There will be no wave action around here. The marina is at the head of navigation so no boats pass. It is calm and quiet and my guess is that petty theft would be more probable than damage from wind and waves. I secure Kobuk and prepare for the return to Utah.
Getting out west will be more complicated than it sounds. First, I'll take a bus north to Chesapeake Bay where an old Ford Aerostar waits to be driven across the country. Then I'll spend a few days driving through a more southerly tier of states than usual. But not far from Roanoke, the Aerostar rear axel will catch on fire and I'll have to abandon the vehicle at a rip-off garage. I'll buy a different vehicle off a small roadside car-lot, a four-wheel-drive Isuzu . . . but that's a story for another day.
Oyster Creek Marina: 29* 53.210' N / 81* 19.280' W
Distance: 43 miles
Total Distance: 8,032 miles